About Salt and Sweeteners
Salt is a minor, but essential ingredient in baked goods. It rarely exceeds 2% of total flour weight in even the saltiest bread doughs, and often comes to 0.10% or less of flour weight in sweet products. However, its ability to accente and intensify the flavors of the other ingredients is indisputable - as is its own assertive presence when used as a topping for bagels, salt sticks and other rolls.
By way of caution, however, salt and yeast don't get along: some bakers delay adding salt to their doughs until all of the other ingredients, including the yeast, are well-mixed. We recommend mixing the dry ingredients for any bread dough- including salt and yeast - well you add the liquids. That way the salt will be too dispersed throughout the dough to affect the yeast.
Although a wide variety of salts - ranging from pure sodium chloride all the way to mineral-rich, colored "gourmet" sea salts from the far reaches of our planet - all salts are interchangeable for purposes of the recipes in t his book.
The only things to be aware of are:
- Table salt, with its smaller, more uniform grains, dissolves faster and more thoroughly than larger-grained kosher and sea salts; and
- Kosher and sea salts can vary in weight from 5oz/142g to 8oz/227g per cup, depending on geography and manufacturer. Therefore, it's essential to weigh your salt if you're using anything but table salt.
For Jews, sweetness is more than a pleasurable sensation: it's a metaphor for all that's good and meaningful in life. On Shabbes, ate sweet challah , and on Rosh Hashonah (New Year's) we dipped slices of apple into honey, and greeted each other with the wish for a zissen yor ("a sweet year"). The first day of cheder (primary school) often brought with it a taste of honey, so that forever after the child would associate sweetness and learning.
And even in the 1940s and 50s, among the immigrant Jews of New York, sweet concord grape wine from Schapiro's on Rivington Street, sponge cake and lekach (honey cake) were all de rigueur at happy occasions.
Until the end of the 18th century, sugar was a luxury that had to be imported from the Mediterranean or the New World. Then, in 1790, an enterprising entrepreneur built Europe's first beet sugar refinery in Silesia using a technology that had been developed in Germany more than 40 years before.
By 1840, Poland and the Ukraine supported more than 600 sugar factories. In 1848, the first year for which statistics are available, Russian sugar production, which includes Poland, was 23,900 tons. By the end of the 19th century, total output of 750,000 tons made Russia the fourth-largest beet sugar producer in the world, behind Germany, Austria and France.
Jews controlled a significant share of the Eastern European sugar industry. In 1832, Herrmann Epstein was the first Jew to build a refinery in Poland, which by 1850 was the country's largest and most modern. In Russia, Jewish entrepreneurs named Brodsky, Halperin and Sachs made their fortunes in sugar; by 1872, Jewish enterprises were responsible for one-quarter of Russian sugar production, and some estimates put this percentage as high as two-thirds, when Jewish-managed factories are included.
From then on, the Yiddish cooking of Russia and Poland took on its characteristic sweetness and differentiating, for example, the challah and gefilte fish of Poland and the Ukraine from those of Lithuania, Hungary, and Bohemia. And although sugar all but eclipsed it as the sweetener of choice, honey continued to hold an important, if limited, place in Jewish baking, notably in like lekach and tayglech (honey balls), which no Rosh Hashanah table is complete.
Sugar does more than just sweeten. In meringues and creamed with shortening, the sharp edges of the sugar crystals rub together to form the air pockets that help to leaven sponge and chiffon cakes. Sugar inhibits gluten development, producing more tender doughs.
Sugar also provides food for yeast, although high percentages of sugar actually retard yeast activity. Since it caramelizes at around 330°F/165°C, sugar promotes browning. And it is hygroscopic - that is, it attracts and holds water - which helps keep baked goods moist and fresh.
Chemically, sugar consists of pure sucrose, which itself is made up of a fructose molecule that is joined to a glucose molecule, and it is this structure that causes sugar to recrystallize easily, causing headaches when it occurs.
To overcome this problem, bakers often will add either glucose, light corn syrup or honey to their simple sugar syrups, or an acid like lemon juice or cream of tartar, which breaks the bond between the fructose and glucose, forming invert sugar. Interestingly, because fructose is sweeter than either sucrose or glucose, invert sugar is sweeter than the white sugar from which it's made.
Types of Sugar
- Raw sugar is nothing more or less than the juice of sugar cane, sugar beets, and so on, from which the water his been completely evaporated, leaving a combination of sugars and various impurities that, by themselves, go by the name molasses.
- Brown sugar is partially refined raw sugar - or it's refined sugar to which measured quantities of molasses have been added - and contains between 85% and 92% sucrose. At one time, brown sugar came in 8 to 10 grades; today, typically only "light" and "dark" are available at retail.
- Refined sugar, which is the nearly pure sucrose component of raw sugar. It comes in three main forms:
- Decorating sugar, also known as sanding sugar or pearl sugar, is a coarse grind that is used, as its name suggests, primarily for decorating cakes, cookies and pastries, and is available both white and in a variety of colors.
- Granulated sugar is the standard table sugar found in virtually every market, restaurant and home in America. It's pure white, with fine, uniform crystals.
- Caster sugar, which is sold in the U.S. as baker's sugar, is a finer, faster-dissolving grind, often used in batters, meringues, and whipped with fat or eggs for creamed or sponge cakes.
- Powdered sugar is sugar that's been ground to a powder, with about 3% cornstarch added as a drying agent to retard clumping. The commercially available form, also called confectioner's sugar and labeled 1X to 10X according to its fineness, is used for icings, frostings, and as a decorative topping for cakes, cookies and pastries.
Besides sugar, other sweeteners play a prominent role in the baker's repertoire as well:
- Honey. Like sugar, honey is hygroscopic; in fact, water makes up nearly 20% of liquid honey. Unlike sugar, however, which is nutritionally without value beyond its calories, honey contains significant amounts of vitamins B6, C and riboflavin, as well as manganese, iron, copper, zinc and potassium.
- Chemically, too, honey differs from sugar not only in its relative percentages of fructose (41%) and glucose (36%), but also by virtue of the fact that unlike sugar, the fructose and glucose molecules are not bound together, making it taste sweeter than white sugar.
- Honey comes in many different varieties and tastes, depending on its origin and the kinds of flowers the bees that produced it fed on. Of the varieties generally available at retail, acacia honey is the lightest in color and mildest in taste, followed by orange blossom, clover, and wildflower. The darkest - and the kind most frequently used in Jewish baking - is buckwheat honey, which is less sweet than most other varieties and much higher in acid, with a slightly bitter finish reminiscent of molasses.
- Malt, which is available in both dry and liquid forms, is made from barley that has been sprouted, dried and refined, differs significantly from both sugar and honey. For one thing, its primary sugar is maltose, which does for yeast what steroids do for athletes. In addition, depending on how it was processed, malt can contain substantial amounts of the enzyme diastase, which breaks the starches present in flour into simple sugars that yeast can feed on, as well as other enzyme that tenderize gluten. Finally, it is also a browning agent, imparting a lovely golden brown color to breads and rolls made with malt.
- Light Corn Syrup, which is made from cornstarch, suffers from very bad PR, largely as a result of the controversy surrounding the nutritional effects of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). In fact, regular light corn syrup contains no fructose at all, but consists primarily of glucose, plus smaller amounts of dextrin and maltose. As an invert sugar, corn syrup prevents sugar syrups from crystallizing and also has humectant (moisture-holding) properties, which improve the texture and shelf life of cakes and pastries.
- Molasses is concentrated sugar cane juice. Sulfured molasses is a by-product of sugar refining, while unsulfured molasses retains all the components of the cane juice. Molasses is both acidic and hygroscopic, meaning it can be used with baking soda to leaven baked goods and absorbs water from the air. Generally, the darker the molasses, the stronger its flavor. Jewish bakers used molasses only rarely, as a coloring and sweetening agent for pumpernickels, and, when buckwheat honey wasn't available, as a darkener for lekach (honey cake).